Bay counts the cost of ailing power network
Every day. That is how often Nelson Mandela Bay is hit with a power outage not linked to load-shedding.
As businesses and residents struggle with water outages, load-shedding and Covid-19 setbacks, the constant power outages are creating even more havoc.
Just this month, close to 20 outages were reported by municipal officials — something business owners say cannot be allowed to continue.
Some of the reasons cited for the outages range from oil circuit breakers tripping, to bad weather and illegal connections.
The city urgently needs R700m in the next five years for the crippling infrastructure backlog.
The average number of outages stems from a count of municipal notifications sent to a media WhatsApp group whenever a section of the city loses power.
An analysis of these notifications, for September, shows:
- Most of the outages are caused by oil circuit breakers, with 14 tripping since the start of the month;
- Overhead lines losing power twice;
- Emergency repair work needed on a feeder, two oil circuit breakers, and one overhead line; and
- Two substations going off.
On Friday afternoon, an oil circuit breaker at the Bethelsdorp substation was the latest to trip, affecting sections of Missionvale and Windvogel.
An oil circuit breaker trips — often due to a faulty transformer, cables, overhead lines — to prevent a substation from exploding.
A handful of the outage notifications do not include a reason for the power going off nor a time frame as to when power will be restored.
According to the Bay’s Integrated Development Plan (IDP), the city’s electricity network is a mixture of aged and relatively new infrastructure.
“The majority being older, with some equipment older than 40 years. It is therefore urgent that major upgrade, refurbishment, and replacement take place,” it says.
“The current condition of the electrical infrastructure requires a major injection of funds and manpower to bring it to acceptable conditions in line with national standards and the expectation of electricity users.”
The R700m is needed to upgrade some of the city’s 3,000 substations, overhead lines and cables.
Municipal spokesperson Mthubanzi Mniki said the oil circuit breakers inside and outside substations were being properly maintained.
He said the substation equipment maintenance operating budget was R2.9m, with R344,171 spent so far for the 2021/2022 financial year.
Asked if this budget was adequate, he said: “No.”
He said load-shedding also had an impact on the outdated infrastructure.
“It was never designed to be used excessively, thus resulting in more faults and outages and shortening of the lifespan of the equipment,” he said.
Energy expert Chris Yelland said if the outages were compared with a world standard they would be classified as “abnormally high”.
“However, it is not unusual in SA’s metros and most of the outages are likely due to cable and overhead conductor theft along with outdated infrastructure.”
He said a lack of maintenance played a big part in outages around the country, but it was odd that a metro the size of the Bay still used oil circuit breakers.
“The use of oil circuit breakers shows the age of the system.
“These types of breakers went out of fashion 25 years ago.”
Yelland said they were dangerous and a municipality the size of the Bay should not be using them.
“If they fail, you are talking about a major fire.
“They [the municipality] should have replaced them a long time ago.”
Businesses, already struggling to deal with Covid-19, water shortages and load-shedding, are hardest hit as no warnings are given beforehand.
The outages are costing them their hard-earned revenue, with power disruptions lasting up to four hours at a time.
On Thursday, an oil circuit breaker tripped at the Arlington substation in Glendore Road, Port Elizabeth, leaving Broadwood, Walmer Heights and Providentia without power.
Excell Catering Equipment owner Henry Kriel said he had intended to finalise several quotations when the power went off at about 2pm.
“Instead, I was forced to wake up at 4am on Friday to catch up,” he said.
He said there had been no prior warning and the electricity had been restored only after 4pm that Thursday.
“Covid-19 hit us like a ton of bricks.
“[And] we are forced to deal with load-shedding and water shortages,” he said.
“Then we have these outages on top of all of that.
“It is crazy.”
Nine days earlier, Kadiro Buno’s Makka Shop in Bloemendal was left in darkness.
The outage at the Bloemendal substation also affected Palmridge, Aspen Heights and Heath Park.
“Often, we are forced to close the shop as we can’t operate without electricity,” Buno said.
“We turn customers away and close the doors.”
On the September 9 outage, Buno said he had assumed it was due to load-shedding.
“The power goes on and off all the time. We lose money. We sell cooked chickens and cold drinks.”
KwaNobuhle hairdresser Onele Cembi, who runs Odds ’n Odz Dread Salon, said he was often forced to turn customers away during the outages.
A feeder at the Mabandla substation was switched off for emergency repairs on Thursday, causing an outage that lasted a couple of hours.
“When I don’t have power I turn customers away.
“I am losing money,” Cembi said.
Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber CEO Nomkhita Mona said the business sector was severely affected by localised outages, particularly in the industrial and commercial districts.
“These outages result in significant reputation and productivity losses to SMMEs as well as some of the biggest employers in the local economy,” she said.
Mona said the outages should be seen as an extremely dire situation, considering that thousands of jobs were at risk due to the economic recession.
“We have requested an urgent meeting with officials from the municipality to discuss solutions to their current challenges.”
She said the electrical challenges were due to a combination of issues such as an extensive maintenance backlog, electricity losses due to illegal connections, theft, and tampering.
Yelland, meanwhile, said the city probably needed to start replacing infrastructure as maintenance was no longer helping.
“It is like an old car. Sometimes it costs more to maintain and it becomes cheaper to buy a new one.”
He said the cables were probably failing — causing the oil circuit breakers to trip — due to the constant repairs.
“At some point equipment reaches the end of its life. You need to replace it.”
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